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Pitching mechanics and results over time

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What used to work for pitchers may no longer work after many years in the league.

The burst. The extension.
The burst. The extension.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Pitching is a risky business. Each pitcher currently not on the disabled list has something like a 30 percent chance of going on the DL sometime during this season. An injury history and higher velocity increase those odds. It's unfortunate that one of the factors most related to improved overall performance, velocity, seems to be associated with a higher injury risk, i.e., non-performance. Some pitchers seem much more durable than others, like James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie, and some pitchers are much more injury prone, like Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow. Those injuries can pile up over time.

Despite the inherent almost-uniform injury risk due to being a pitcher, there is no uniform way to throw the ball to home plate. There are various attributes of mechanics that can be isolated and described, but there is significant variance among pitchers for each of those attributes. The recent confusion over the legality of Carter Capps' delivery comes to mind when citing significant variance in deliveries. Variance in mechanics means variance in control, command, and results. Mechanics can also degrade over time, but more prescient is that bodies degrade over time.

Two examples of results degrading over time are Tim Lincecum and Mat Latos. Lincecum, after two seasons of utter dominance in 2008 and 2009, is still trying to find his way as a pitcher with significantly decreased velocity. Latos is still young at 27 but is also navigating the dangerous waters of velocity decline. Despite the similarities, the pitchers could not be more different in terms of mechanics.

Lincecum stands 5'11" and currently weighs 170 lbs. I'm not sure what his playing weight was during those dominant years, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't 6'6" 245 lbs, like Latos is now. The frames of these two guys are so different, yet they both threw four-seam fastballs in the mid-90s during their respective heydays. Observe their deliveries.

I understand that these are different camera views, but there aren't many embeddable *short* videos out there to showcase their mechanics. I could make a gif, but these are much clearer.

At any rate, look at the differences. Lincecum, when he raises his leg, incorporates a little bit of rotation to add some torque to his delivery. His delivery is quick and finishes with a powerful burst toward the plate. Lincecum almost jumps in a similar way to Capps, but the jump is more muted. That torque plus momentum toward the plate is how Lincecum generated his velocity during his elite years.

Latos, on the other hand, has a slow, dragging delivery. There is not a large amount of torque, and he has almost no burst toward the plate. Everything is slow and controlled. To be honest, when I watch his delivery, I am mystified by his ability to generate mid-90s heat during his early career. Until I remember that he was young and big and strong.

There is quite the contrast. Lincecum has a "violent" delivery, though it's really more powerful than violent. Lincecum squeezes every ounce of kinetic energy from his mechanics in order to generate velocity. Latos has a controlled, almost boring delivery. Latos leaks every ounce of kinetic energy from his mechanics, yet he still generated good velocity. Despite the different approaches, the results are becoming more similar.

Data current as of 4/27

latos_lincecum_velodecline

Each pitcher has suffered a decline in results as velocity has declined. That decline is much more pronounced for Lincecum than it is for Latos, but Lincecum has a few years on Latos.

One pitcher relied on mechanics and the other brute force to generate velocity. No matter. Time takes its toll on all pitchers. Lincecum has remained relatively healthy throughout his career. There have been off-field distractions, such as his preference for marijuana and funky diets, but on-field injuries have been limited to day-to-day stuff except for a back issue last year. Despite the relative health, Lincecum has just not been able to maintain his high-octane mechanics into his later years. He is older, and that delivery requires peak physical condition that Lincecum may not have anymore.

Latos, on the other hand, has experienced several trips to the disabled list. A strained left oblique in 2010. A strained right shoulder in 2011. Left knee surgery in 2014. An elbow injury at the end of 2014 that shut him down for the rest of the short season. Injuries pile up over time. For a guy whose mechanics are not designed to maximize his size and strength to generate velocity, there is little room for aches and pains to eat away at his strength. Thus, Latos finds himself with middling velocity despite his relatively young age (27).

To be clear, I'm not suggesting either pitcher revolutionize his mechanics. Lincecum's mechanics are optimized for his body to generate velocity, and radical changes could wipe out his ability to pitch at a high level. I'm not sure what slight changes could help him, if any. Latos isn't far removed from good seasons with the mechanics he has, though a little more burst toward the plate probably couldn't hurt, right?

One pitcher's mechanics are specifically designed to generate velocity from a slight frame, while another pitcher's mechanics seem to be getting in the way of generating velocity from a big, strong guy. Despite the differences in mechanics, the results over time have been similar. Imagine if one had the other's mechanics.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball and Pro Sports Transactions.

Kevin Ruprecht is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.